At any rate, let us share with readers a couple of incidents from the life of Swami Vivekananda to illustrate how he had surrendered to the will of God for his daily meal. As you all know that Sri Ramakrishna, his Guru, died in 1886. So, Swami Vivekananda, like his other brother disciples, took to the life of a wandering monk going from one end of India to another. Mostly these wanderings were on foot, except as and when a devotee bought for him a railway ticket. So around 1891, he was wandering in the desert of Rajasthan. At one point a devotee had bought him a third-class railway ticket. But he had no money to buy any food. Since it was a practice among monks not to carry anything, even money, he couldn’t buy any food. In other words, for food he surrendered to the grace of God. (Readers would recall how Sri Ramakrishna couldn’t even touch money or carry any food or other item given by some devotee for a later time.)
Anyway, in the same compartment was also a rich merchant, enjoying his delicious dinner that he had brought from home. Since the Swami was very young at that time, just in his late twenties, the merchant mocked at him saying that how it made a difference when one worked for one’s living rather than squandered his life for religion. At any rate, when the destination came both got down, the merchant sat on a bench in a covered area, while the Swami sat on a bare platform. He did so because he was very ordinarily dressed. So he sat down under a tree and was very hungry. Then a wonderful thing happened, which Swami Vivekananda later narrated to his disciples.
From a distance, a man appeared onto the platform. Pointing to the Swami with a finger he said: “Babaji, babaji [in India a holy person is often addressed that way, which stands for father], I have brought food for you.” He came closer and closer. The Swami thought that the man had made a mistake and told him so. “No, no, no”, replied the man, “I mean you. I am a sweetmeat seller here. I am a devotee of Lord Rama. I was taking my midday nap after my worship and lunch. Lord Rama came to me in a dream and said: ‘my devotee is in distress. You go and serve him.’ First, I slept without caring. I didn’t listen to that dream instruction. But again, and again I was pushed. ‘Go soon, go soon.’ Then I immediately got up, prepared sweets and luchis, etc., took water and then came to the platform. And from a distance, I could identify you. You have been shown to me in the dream. So, please take these.” Swami Vivekananda was touched by this experience and, with tears in his eyes, he took the food and blessed him. The merchant who was listening to all this conversation between the two felt very much ashamed and went to the Swami and asked for his forgiveness, which he very gladly gave. (The Life of Swami Vivekananda By His Eastern and Western Disciples, v.1, 348-49.)
There is another incident. In Vrindavan, while going around the Govardhan Hill, the Swami vowed that he would not beg his food from anyone and eat only what was offered to him without asking. During the first day, he became exceedingly hungry at noon. Besides the heavy shower that came pouring added to his discomfort. But he continued to walk through the woods. Soon he heard a voice calling him from behind. The Swami didn’t pay any attention and began to run instead to test this apparent act of Providence. But the man who was calling him soon overtook him and insisted that he must accept the food. The Swami accepted it, saying nothing. Shortly afterwards, the man disappeared into the woods. Ecstatic for this miraculous act of the Lord, and with tears streaming from his eyes, the Swami cried out, “Glory to Shri Radha! Glory to Shri Krishna!” It is quite clear that in the wilderness the Lord had taken care of His devotee. (The Life … 218-19.)
Do these two incidents show that God Himself came down to protect His devotee? I for one don’t think so. For after all God is not some being like us, except with much bigger powers, although Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad-Gita that the Lord never forsakes those who have surrendered unto Him. Unlike Christianity, which says that God incarnated only once in the personality of Jesus, Vedanta believes that every one of us is divine, which means that everyone is an incarnation of God. Not that we are all identical to Sri Rama or Krishna, Chaitanya, or Sri Ramakrishna, etc., for they are considered incarnations of God by millions of people. As Sri Ramakrishna used to say that although God abides in everyone, His manifestation or power, is different depending on the medium through which it manifests. Given this premise, we believe that since Swami Vivekananda was a Self-realized person, his thoughts (about hunger, etc.) were so powerful forces that reverberated in the equally pure minds of some people who read them and came forward to his rescue. We are sure that it has happened in everyone’s case sometimes, that you were thinking of someone, and the same person just calls you on the telephone. In the case of perfect persons, such a thing happens more often.
It should not be concluded from the above two incidents from the life of Swami Vivekananda that to be a monk is an easy thing; in fact, all the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, except Swami Adhbhutananda, were from educated families and themselves were well educated. Swami Vivekananda was preparing for his law exams, and after that, like his late father he wanted to join a legal profession and support his mother and other siblings. But he had the divine calling, and he renounced everything and surrendered to the will of God. His brother disciples and he traveled throughout India mostly on foot unless, as we saw above, someone bought them a railway ticket without caring to demand something for their food for which they had surrendered to God that never kept them hungry.
But Swamiji never advised his householder devotees to surrender to God and He will provide for their needs. He would say: First gain physical strength and mental strength; develop your talents and capacities and work efficiency, and gain self-confidence. Furthermore, get knowledge and earn wealth by hard and honest labor; and share your wealth and happiness with others. All this is part and parcel of the spiritual training of man in the early stages. Renunciation of wealth, renunciation of this ‘I’, complete surrender to God, comes later, not in the beginning.
In other words, Swamiji sought to emphasize this truth about human growth very much, because he found many people who were weak and good-for-nothing and yet held the attitude: ‘God, I am nothing, You are everything. I surrender myself to You.’ They are really nothing! Obviously, there is nothing praiseworthy about their statement of self-surrender. It is meaningless to regard anyone who is unfit for the world as fit for God. God will say to Himself, ‘what shall I do with this fellow? He or she will be a burden to me. It is not a joy to have such a devotee; bhakti or devotion is made of sterner stuff.’ Otherwise, it (self-surrender) is just a cloak for laziness and weakness.
In the Bhagavad-Gita (5.6) Sri Krishna says: ‘Renunciation of action, O mighty-armed, is hard to attain by one who has not passed through the yoga of action; the meditative person, purified by the yoga of action, quickly attains Brahman.’ That is to say that although God’s grace is imperative, yet hard work and determination are necessary for success. This is exactly the significance of Sri Ramakrishna’s parable: the wind of God’s grace is always blowing, but you must first unfurl the sails.
Swami Vivekananda often used two terms, ‘manhood’ and ‘sainthood’: ‘don’t try to become a saint (and Self-surrender) before you become a man in the true sense of the term.’ So, renouncing the ‘I’ cannot come without training the ‘I’ and strengthening it; otherwise it will be a fake renunciation. Therefore, without this training in yoga, Karma-yoga’, by which one develops character efficiency and the public spirit of service and dedication, none can achieve real renunciation (sannyasa).
There is a story in Srimad Bhaagavatam. An elephant was caught by a crocodile; he was suffering terribly. He tried his utmost to free himself from that crocodile but failed. In the end, he praised the Divine by offering the Lord a lotus from the pool he was in. And the Lord came and saved that elephant. That is a mythical story in the Bhaagavatam. It is well known as the myth of Gajendramoksha, ‘salvation of the lordly elephant’. In the story, the elephant praises the Divine, and one verse in the hymn in that scripture is very famous for conveying the idea, says Swami Ranganathananda. It says: ‘I take refuge in the self-existing Reality in Whom this universe, from Whom this universe, by Whom this universe, Who Himself is this universe, Who is also beyond this universe, in Him I take refuge.’ In this verse, Srimad Bhaagavatam expresses the highest Vedantic ideas. (See his Eternal Values for A Changing Society, v.1, 395.)
One might think that the above ‘myth’ of Gajendramoksha, after all is a myth, not a real fact. Our response to such a conclusion is that even a myth like the different scenes in a movie is based on some reality, though they may not pertain to the actors who are acting the roles in that movie. At any rate, we would like to share with you the story of Girish Ghosh, one of the great devotees of Sri Ramakrishna; it is Girish who was the most forceful in declaring Sri Ramakrishna as an Avatar (Incarnation of God). It is he who used to call himself, ‘I am a sinner.’ But as Dr. Radhakrishnan, a former president of India had said: ‘every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.’ Girish Ghosh’s story exactly, as we show below, illustrates this assertion very well.
In a ‘Biographical Introduction’ to Swami Chetananand’s book, Girish Chandra Ghosh, Christopher Isherwood writes: ‘Girish was a person of great vitality, strength, ingenuity, force, drive and indeed – a protean [one who could change his roles and forms] kind of talent. He was a poet, dramatist, and actor, and he threw himself into everything with the utmost vitality. It was a function, an aspect, of this vitality that he was also exceedingly sensual; he had considerable sex life, … and he drank enormously … in the case of somebody like Girish, without this energy he would not have had all the positive qualities as well as the negative ones.’
Girish asked for instruction from Sri Ramakrishna: “What shall I do? Is there anything I can do?” Sri Ramakrishna answered, “Try and call on God three times a day.” Girish said: “I am sorry. I can’t promise. I may forget.” Then the Master said: “Do it twice a day. Do it once.” “No, no, I can’t promise anything,” Girish told him. Then the Master said: “All right, then give me your power of attorney. I’ll take it over. I’ll be responsible for you. Now you have no will at all. You will only say, ‘I do whatever the Lord will.’ Don’t ever say again”, I will do this’ or ‘I will not do that.’
Girish’s self-surrender was truly unique and phenomenal. Swami Vivekananda once remarked: ‘In G.C. [Girish Chandra] alone I have seen that true resignation – that true spirit of a servant of the Lord … I have not met his parallel. From him I have learnt the lesson of self-surrender.’ (The Complete Works of Vivekananda, v.7, 271.) To just illustrate the extent of Girish’s self-surrendering, he, in his old age, once asked M., the chronicler of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: ‘Brother, could you beat me with your shoes? I am not joking I am serious’. M. smiled and asked the reason for such a request. Girish replied: … Sri Ramakrishna is sitting within my heart and is always protecting me. Yet [I am pondering over my death] and I wonder what will happen to me after death!’ (Swami Chetananananda, They Lived with God, 290) And Girish really began to live like this. It seems that Girish in some way did turn into the kind of devotee who was indeed a saint. This indeed was an absolute surrendering at Sri Ramakrishna’s feet, and that was the way he lived. And like Gajendramoksha of the Bhagavatam story, Girish too, we assume, became immortal.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Umesh Gulati, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus Shri Umesh Gulati, based in Durham, NC, is a Vedantist, and a devotee of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. He has regularly published articles inVedanta Kesarifrom Chennai and Prabuddhabharata from Kolkata, and also in Vedanta magazine from England. Lately he also published articles in Marg magazine. After receiving Ph.D, in Economics from the University of Virginia in 1967, he joined East Carolina University in Greenville, NC the same year and retired in 1999.
* This article was inspired by a discourse on Self-Surrender: Easy or Difficult by Pravrajika Shuddhatmaprana at the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of North Carolina. The Pravrajika is an ordained nun of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, and is currently posted at Vivekananda Retreat at Ridgely, New York.